The Cardinal Virtues: Introduction
What we really need right now is to rediscover what a few old words mean.
Thanks to decades of sloppy usage, it’s not entirely clear what virtue and the virtues are actually good for. As Orwell once noted, our language deteriorates because our thoughts become foolish, and the deterioration of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts. The costs of this sloppiness become steep: soon enough virtue starts to seem not only besides the point, but actively lame.
I remember hearing the v-word pretty infrequently during my formative years, mostly in ironic movies. Hopelessly judgmental characters sometimes spoke of it when lecturing others, particularly on matters of sexual conduct, and the term served as a cue for the audience to chuckle at such uptight backwardness. The whole of virtue was reduced to prudery, more or less. These same cinematic blowhards almost always proved to be perverts, their supposed virtue covering for sexual dissoluteness.
The message from the movies was clear enough: such talk was either ridiculous or manipulative or both.
In real life, niceness became the first and last word regarding moral worthiness, the one and only virtue that really counted, though it was rarely ever called a virtue. Safety, too, became something of a schoolmarm byword and an important quasi-virtue. That was pretty much all anyone had to say on the subject.
Give credit where it’s due: Satan is a master strategist and this confusion is some of his most devastating work. People often pay lip service to the old adage, “The devil’s greatest trick was convincing man he didn’t exist.” I daresay this trick is far more impressive. Attack the language and make the virtues seem so lame that nobody has any interest in them. Moral aspiration halts. The resulting slackness of character is very much to his liking. Without moral targets to aim at, a person becomes little more than the product of his given temperament and the education he receives from teachers and movie producers who have little ambition for him. Whether he knows it or not, a man becomes clay in the Enemy’s hands and is just, like, whatever.
Taking the Words Back
Reclaiming the good name of the virtues starts with reclaiming the good name of virtue itself. The classical and medieval traditions which produced more impressive men than ours were obsessed with it, and for them virtue meant something beyond petty niceness and sexual propriety. What was at stake, they knew, was nothing short of man's potential for realizing the utmost of his capacities. The English word traces back to virtus, Latin for “moral strength, high character, goodness; manliness; valor, bravery, courage in war; excellence, worth.” Thomas Aquinas, echoing Aristotle, says “virtue is a perfection, and by this we are to understand the perfection of a power.” So this tradition was not concerned with moral stuffiness, but with man’s ultimate possibilities.
St Augustine calls virtue ”a good habit consonant with our nature." It is nothing if not a habit. We are not courageous or just if we perform isolated acts of courage or justice, but only if we incorporate courage and justice into a mode of being.
Far from being the means by which uptight clerics and elders control you, virtue the habitual excellence that unlocks the best within your human nature.
In the next few weeks, I aim to publish essays on the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. I will draw on the work of Josef Pieper’s volumes on the subject, which draw largely from Aquinas and Aristotle. I am consistently taken aback by how much more invigorating and worthy these moral targets are than I had been led to believe.
What an awesome project. Definitely caught my eye.
An interesting and important project. I look forward to reading more.